City: Detroit, MI
Entrepreneur: Veronika Scott
Walking through the manufacturing floor on the second floor of Ponyride, Detroit’s well-known incubator, we hear sewing machines drone in front of 19 women, each responsible for a piece of The Empowerment Plan’s famous coat. The Empowerment Plan (EP) is well known for making coats. The 5-year old non-profit manufactures long, extremely warm, one-size-fits-all coats that convert into sleeping bags, which are then distributed to homeless people by local social services organizations in 29 US states and several Canadian provinces. What is not apparent at first glance, though, is that this manufacturing floor is providing a critical job to women with incredible stories of resilience and strength, and that each of them was recently homeless.
EP is more that just a humanitarian solution; its founder and CEO Veronika Scott is boldly standing up in the face of a plague facing America – the constricting cycle of generational poverty that keeps the same families cycling through homeless shelters over and over again. By hiring promising, motivated women from Cots, a nearby shelter, EP is providing a step towards financial independence that seems out of reach for many homeless people. Scott is providing her employees a job, a critical step on their journeys, but she is also ensuring that they succeed at work through programming on topics such as professionalism, conflict resolution, leadership, GED prep and – a favorite among EP employees – improv. The women are paid for their time both on the production floor as well as in the professional development classes. At closer look around the floor, hand-written signs on chart paper suggest what to do in the face of interpersonal strife, a quote of the day inspires from a whiteboard, along with an announcement about GED class and upcoming community events.
Veronika personally hires each of the women and knows their individual stories well. She laughed as she imagined with us who of the women would play what role in a commercial for her coat. She is committed individually to each woman working for her, which has multiplied tenfold in 3 years. Her focus has shifted in that time from manufacturing products to providing jobs. We listened at an all-staff strategy meeting as women expressed concern for their employment. Everyone currently employed has the unique option to stay on indefinitely, Veronika comforted, but she insisted that everyone think beyond sewing. She wants to help people achieve whatever they dream of for themselves. To help more women on this path of self-determination, Veronika and her management team have decided on a new employment model that will more deliberately connect EP employees to jobs at other companies as a way to graduate from EP. For Veronika, convincing other employers to defy the stigma of homelessness and provide jobs to women such as those she’s hired is key to her overall vision of building as many opportunities as possible to break the cycle of homelessness.
EP is at an inflection point now – looking to build out a retail arm to help the non-profit become financially independent and increase the number of jobs it can provide to women transitioning out of homeless shelters. Which is where our team came in.
We were asked to help EP with a go-to-market strategy for a new retail version of their flagship coat. This was our first MBAs Across America assignment, and we were excited to be kicking it off so close to our home turf in Ann Arbor. We dug into our marketing course material, called our friends who are PR professionals and began to develop a vision for what EP could do. We ran up against significant questions: Who wants a sleep coat? Would a regular coat sell better? Does the brand have to rely on the humanitarian story or can we make coats in camo colors and sell them to hunters who may or may not care about homeless women? Does any of that matter more than selling as many coats as possible and, thereby, employing as many women as possible?
We came to an important conclusion: the product matters. But we also encountered an interesting marketing question facing just about any socially oriented business, product, or marketing campaign – the competitive strength of the EP’s potential retail product, we think, lies in the stories of those who made it. But when we started exploring how those stories, which we knew had the power to impact others and inspire hope, we were also confronted with the risk of exploiting rather than empowering.
Veronika has learned to answer to this core challenge straightforwardly and with conviction: each woman chooses for herself how her story is told and to whom. As we left her and her team with suggestions for brand identity and strategic priorities, we realized that therein lay the true meaning of her business’s name.